30 Years Since Myanmar’s Pro-democracy Uprising

By The Irrawaddy 17 March 2018

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! For Myanmar, it is fair to say that March is the Month of Revolution. Taking a look back at history, Myanmar fought back fascist Japan on March 27, 1945. This revolution finally led to independence in 1948. Looking back to 1988, Ko Phone Maw, a student at RIT [Rangoon Institute of Technology], was shot and killed by riot police on March 13. On March 16 and 17, students staged protests on the campus of Rangoon University, which led to the 8888 [pro-democracy] popular uprising. That event will have its 30th anniversary this year. Ko Sanny and Ko Ye Naing Aung, also known as Ko Wa, who joined the student movement in March 1988, join me to discuss how far the student movements we initiated have come and the challenges we have encountered along the way. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

30 Years Since Myanmar’s Pro-democracy Uprising

DATELINE IRRAWADDY30 Years Since Myanmar’s Pro-democracy UprisingThe Irrawaddy discusses achievements and challenges in that time with two veterans of the student and pro-democracy movements.

Posted by The Irrawaddy – English Edition on Friday, March 16, 2018

It has been 30 years. The Tiananmen Square incident, to make a comparison with neighboring countries, happened in 1989. In terms of the political freedoms in our country at present, I find that we are ahead of China in that regard. Ko Phone Maw died in March, and Ko Sanny, you joined the student protests on March 16 and 17. What did you do, and why?

Ko Sanny: We were students at that time, and I participated as a student in the protests. We got acquainted with RIT students during the banknote crisis [the government’s demonetizing of banknotes without warning] in September 1987. We went to RIT after we learned about [the police shooting of Ko Phone Maw] on March 13. We lived in Insein [Township], and RIT was not far from us. RIT students had formed a committee and posted a notice [on the wall] listing their demands. One of the demands was [for the government] to reveal the truth since [the government] claimed that [Ko Phone Maw] died while fighting other students. They asked us to distribute the papers at other schools such as Rangoon University, Hlaing University, Kyimyindaing University and RC [regional college] 1. We Rangoon University students could not stand [the killing], and we felt that we should also join them. On March 14, we posted demand notices at universities.

KZM: So, you joined the protest because you could not put up with it. What were your other aims?

Sanny: We came to realize that the congress [of the Burma Socialist Program Party] was a rubber-stamp body; that the education system was not a good one; and that it was the outcome of the political system. We still didn’t know the exact causes and effects, but understood that it was the result of a lack of political liberty. We wanted to change the political system. We felt sad about their suppression of students and their hiding the truth, so we decided to fight back.

KZM: So, it could be said that protests broke out because of people’s dislike of single-party dictatorship, the poor education system, and economic hardship. Ko Wa, you were an RIT student then. How did you come to join the student protests in March?

Ko Wa: On March 14, 1988, the RIT incident spread to the campus of Hlaing University, which was then called Regional College (2). We saw crowds of students gathering at the university canteen. While we were sitting at a teashop of the canteen, someone fixed a paper to the bamboo pole near us. From the words on the paper, we guessed that the student movement had become an anti-government movement. So, we realized that this had become the very first place, in the more than 260,000 square miles of Myanmar’s territory, to enjoy the democratic right of freedom of expression. Political repression was quite harsh at that time; we were not even allowed to form community-based religious groups to offer alms to monks or make criticisms during the rule of the Burma Socialist Program Party. To us, it was the moment that marked the transition from student movement to political movement. Students launched the movement not because they had strong political awareness, but because they felt that the injustices created by the political system would destroy the future of the country. At first, students living nearby or studying in the same class would gather; for example, in my case, I and with my friends wrote statements and fixed them on buses and distributed them to passers-by. Later, students in each community gathered across the country; it had become a popular revolution.

KZM: It has been 30 years now. Ko Sanny and Ko Wa, you were both imprisoned for years. Ko Wa was arrested two, three times. Ko Sanny spent eight, nine years in prison. Thirty years later, the one-party dictatorship has ended. And we now have an elected government and a certain degree of democracy. Are you satisfied with the situation today, given the sacrifices of the students?

Sanny: Frankly speaking, I am not satisfied. Compared with other [democratic] countries, ours is not yet a democratic country—I don’t mean development and prosperity, but in terms of political liberty. Our expectation was to abolish the one-party system influenced by military dictatorship.

KZM: There is no longer such a system.

Sanny: Though there is no such system, they [the military] have officially taken seats in the Parliament. Furthermore, there is a considerable amount of unseen control [by the military]. So, I feel that our expectations have not yet been fulfilled, as there is still no open political system.

KZM: Ko Wa, do you think Ko Sanny’s expectations are too unrealistic? Are you satisfied with what your sacrifices have achieved?

Ko Wa: Generally speaking, the country has not yet reached the goal I anticipated, but I am somewhat satisfied. Because, as I’ve said, there was only a bamboo’s space of liberty in the past. At that time, the press censorship board imposed draconian censorship on the media, and it was therefore even dubbed as a press “kempeitai” [referring to the military police of the Japanese Army during World War II, known for its brutal torture of detainees]. Now, we can publish newspapers and journals freely.

KZM: Perhaps to a certain extent [there is press freedom].

Ko Wa: Yes, to a certain extent. There is no censorship board now and we are free to form, support and run civil society organizations. Compared to the situation then, we are enjoying things that we didn’t dream of at that time. But comparing the current situation against the yardstick of genuine democratic norms and the fundamental rights of society, we are lagging far behind. For example, the 2008 Constitution must be amended. We don’t like it. But the Constitution at least confirms the rights and entitlements of citizens. So, I’d say there has been some progress, but it is not yet satisfactory, and we have not reached our goal. But I believe we have a good foundation from which to move forward.

KZM: Since the death of Ko Phone Maw in 1988, we have demanded democracy as our political cause. The democracy we have achieved has never been a complete one. I mean we now enjoy a certain degree of democracy. The fact that we have an elected government is a sign of democracy. But this democracy is subject to restrictions, like the 2008 Constitution and other political controls. So, the democracy we have now is limited. There are problems such as establishing a ceasefire, achieving internal peace and the Constitution. Our country could be compared to a patient with a chronic illness. My question is, how much has our country recovered after 30 years, and what has yet to be healed?

Sanny: There has been a certain amount of progress as Ko Wa has mentioned. But problems remain. There was no 2008 Constitution in the past. It imposes a barrier for us. In the past, there was greater potential for political reforms because there was no 2008 Constitution. But while the 2008 Constitution provides fundamental rights for citizens, it has also become a new hurdle to us. We have Parliament now, but it is not yet strong, which is understandable. However, there are more complex issues now. For example, the issues we face today didn’t exist before. Twenty years ago, there were no ultra-nationalists. There are radical forces now. What’s more, we political forces were united in the past. There was a degree of unity among student activists and political parties, but that unity has gradually disappeared now. These are great obstacles for us.

KZM: We have entered a democratic transition period since Myanmar opened the door in 2011 under President U Thein Sein’s government. In other words, Myanmar has been trying to recover, but has not yet fully recovered. In terms of the political system, there are obstacles like the Constitution. At the same time, there are disagreements. We have not yet even reached a ceasefire agreement to achieve internal peace. And there is still no equality and self-determination. So, there are many problems. At times like this, political and religious tolerance is important. Ko Wa, what steps can the current government take to promote such tolerance?

Ko Wa: Personally, I think the 2008 Constitution needs to be amended. I’m not satisfied with it, but it does provide fundamental rights. To answer your question, suffice it to say that our country is faced with countless problems in the economic, social, health and education sectors. Individuals, political parties and groups may have different views about how to handle those issues. But I think the government or a political party should take the lead role to design a national strategy to address all those issues together. I mean if we try to solve problems separately, we will never solve them. If we solve this problem, that problem arises. So, we need a comprehensive strategy to address those issues together. If we can make that happen through dialogue and negotiation, there are good opportunities for us to move forward, I’d say.

KZM: There are provisions that restrict liberty and don’t meet democratic norms in the 2008 Constitution. So, this hampers democratic transition. The Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] has traditionally played a role in politics because of the part it played in the country’s history as well as the position it secured by creating the 2008 Constitution. If we don’t consider these — the Tatmadaw did play a role in the country’s history because it was formed before independence — but if we remove it from a political role, what will happen? Because some argue that Myanmar is not yet ready to enjoy complete democracy and complete liberty.

Sanny: Yes, the Tatmadaw played a role in the country’s history. Tatmadaw leaders seized power in 1962, and they ruled the country for many years. So, they might feel that they are well versed in managing the country. At the same time, they might look down on civilians and politicians. And their low opinion of them didn’t change even after the 2015 election. It has not changed much. After the NLD won the 1990 election, there was a call for dialogue. Dialogue means an open discussion between two sides—democratic forces and the military. There are third-party stakeholders, like ethnic groups. But, at first, there must be bilateral discussions. I think there is still no genuine dialogue between the two sides so far. The meetings and agreements so far are the result of personal ties between the two sides rather than the result of an open dialogue. This won’t work, I believe. Our country didn’t undergo a normative democratic transition. Both the Tatmadaw and the political forces, especially their leaders, are responsible for this. It is important that the democratic transition is transparent and meets norms. It is highly important that [agreements] are transparent and accurately documented in a transition. We still can’t make that happen. And people are not informed by the authorities about their agreements. So, agreements which come as the outcome of personal ties are not good for the country as a whole. As Ko Wa has said, we need dialogue based on documented and true agreements between all political forces. We need to persuade the military and mobilize political forces to make that happen.

KZM: Given the current situation, can we say it is unlikely?

Ko Wa: It is unlikely that the Tatmadaw will easily give up the political power they have held. It is said that civil society organizations and political parties are weak in political transition. But that is the result of the restrictions on political rights from 1962 to 2010. That is the reason behind our problems today. Our country lags behind on the economy, education, technology and so on, and only when civil society and political parties are strong will we be able to catch up. If the Tatmadaw really wants to establish modern armed forces that are on a par with those of other countries, it needs to change its attitude and let civil society and political parties grow. They Tatmadaw needs to seriously consider this. Even if the Tatmadaw alone is capable, it can’t promote the interests of itself and the country given the current economic and technological inferiority and lack of unity among people in the country. More importantly, there will be tough competition in the region when the One Belt One Road Initiative and the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) are implemented. If there is no unity among the forces including the Tatmadaw, we won’t be able to overcome those challenges.

The Tatmadaw should start taking steps now. It has accepted federal Union in principle, and though it has not officially said when it will give up political power, the Constitution implies that it must give up some time in the future. So, the Tatmadaw should be thinking about how to build capable armed forces, how to strengthen civil society and political parties that support building strong armed forces, and how to facilitate the national economy.

Without doing this, it won’t be able to build a modern, capable and professional army that can be on a par with those of other countries. Tatmadaw leaders need to make changes now for the future of the country in cooperation with political parties, civil society and organizations that represent the people. On behalf of people who want democracy, I would like to say that we don’t view the Tatmadaw as the enemy. Our country needs the Tatmadaw. I personally want to see a highly modern and capable Tatmadaw. For that to happen, I would like to urge the Tatmadaw to boldly join hands with the people in trust.

KZM: Ko Sanny, Ko Wa thanks a lot!